Vanishing Or Revitalizing?
For 350 years in America, Jews have been rising to the challenge of survival, scholar says.
have used over the years to deal with fears of
• Keeping tradition. The Orthodox stressed
educating Jews, even translating prayers into
English, but nothing deviated from Jewish law.
• Adapting to the new land meant coping
with pressures on Judaism to change and make
it more spiritually uplifting in the 1800s.
Jewish congregations added organ music,
shortened prayers and initiated mixed seating.
In the early 1900s, the Conservative move-
ment saw tremendous growth, but is now out-
paced by Reform Judaism.
• Preserving Jewish peoplehood appealed to
those who rejected the synagogue. They
formed groups like B'nai Brith (sons of the
covenant), which began in 1843. It didn't
mention God or Torah, but stressed Jewish
unity regardless of ideology.
"American history oscillates back and forth
among these core values," Sarna said.
f you're one of the many Jews worrying
whether Judaism will survive amid the
intermarriage and freedoms in America
today, historically you are not alone. Jews have
worried about whether their religion would
endure in America ever since the first Jewish
community was established 350 years ago.
That's the observation of Jonathan Sarna, the
Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor in
American Jewish History at Brandeis
University in Waltham,
Mass., who spoke at the
Jewish Book Fair Nov. 13 at
the Jewish Community
Center in West Bloomfield.
Sarna, the author and editor
of more than 20 books,
received the 2004 National
Jewish Book of the Year
Award for his latest work, .
Good To Worry
American Judaism: A History.
Today, as often before, American Jews find cre-
With humor and authority, Sarna told
ative ways to maintain Jewish life with vision-
almost 300 people who attended his talk that
ary leaders, committed followers and generous
the long-standing fear that Judaism is doomed
philanthropists, he said. He admitted contra-
in America has, so -far, proven unfounded.
dictory trends still exist. Intermarriage is high,
Through his research, he discovered, instead,
but so is the number of new Jewish day
that in every era Jews in America actually rose
schools. And Jews today are more engaged reli-
to meet the challenge.
giously than they were 70 years ago.
"Jews transformed their faith to make it
"It's good for Jews to worry, it keeps us from
more appealing to the concerns of the day,"
becoming complacent," he said, concluding
with humor that hopefully it will prove pos-
Brothers Adolph and Sam Frankel immigrated though Galvest on
Although some didn't succeed, he said, "my
sible for the current "vanishing generation"
story is not a linear descent from being Orthodox and eventually owned clothing stores in Texas and Oklahoma.
of American Jews to be succeeded by another
to marching down the aisle of a church, but a
dynamic story about struggling to be American
Jews but bad for Judaism?
An audience member, Eric Grossman of Southfield,
and Jewish. It's a story about those who lose and those
said, -"Sarna's idea that the nature of American society
who regain their faith; about assimilation and about
Strategies Of Survival
and economy has emboldened American Judaism is
Over the years, options we take for granted — such as
Sarna recounted a conversation 30 years ago when
However, Richard Leland of West Bloomfield was
choosing the way we want to observe Judaism or
he told a rabbinical scholar that he studied American
skeptical of Sarna's optimism that the diversity within
which synagogue to belong to — once were consid-
Jewish. history. The man was appalled.
Judaism is good. "I think it's the opposite, particularly
"I'll tell you all you need to know about American
with Jews who don't recognize other Jews — that's
A big question at the time of the American
Jewish history," the elder told Sarna. "The Jews came
Revolution was could Judaism be reconciled with free- destructive. And he passed over lightly the 54 percent
to America, they abandoned their faith, they began to
intermarriage rate among Jews. What'll happen in a
dom? Would it survive in a democracy?
live like goyim and, after a generation or two, they
In the 1800s, the theme of survival translated into
intermarried and disappeared! That's American Jewish
Mark Goldsmith of Huntington Woods found
concerns over new Jewish immigrants coming from
history. All the rest is commentary. Don't waste your
Sarna's research encouraging and said he liked how
Central Europe. Would they keep the Jewish faith
time. Go and study the Talmud."
Sarna's thoughts tempered the pessimism over the
Lucky for today's scholars, the young man did not
decline in Judaism. "Sands theme that the varied
Today, the concerns include intermarriage and the
take the advice.
streams of Judaism are strengthening rather than dis-
acrimony between the various streams of Judaism.
Sarna, chief historian of both the National Museum
membering Judaism was most inviting," Goldsmith
These tensions, Sarna said, check the excesses of
of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and the
"It's a hopeful note to take away. Rather than
opposing groups and renew Judaism as people com-
350th commemoration of Jewish life in America, dis-
worrying about the diversity of Judaism, we should
pete to survive.
covered over the years a much richer, more complex
Sarna listed three strategies that Jewish communities celebrate it."
story to the recurrent question: Is America good for